I had to make a long trip on an airplane recently, so I used it as an excuse to finally dig into Harry Potter and see what all the fuss was about. Is it great storytelling? (Part 1, part 2, part 3)
Let’s look back on what we’ve learned so far.
I got into this to see if the castle at Universal’s Harry Potter land – okay, wizarding world – was described in the book.
I’d seen it. It was amazing.
How did Rowling describe such an amazing place? Settings are hugely important, aren’t they? How did she do it without slowng the plot or making it boring?
By giving us as little as possible and letting us imagine the rest.
If you learn that, this was worth all the writing I’ve done about it.
After all: Who better to create an amazing castle for each of us than us?
I don’t want to fool myself into thinking the way she has described some of the settings is the way I would do it, but I think it is. I don’t tell people more than they need to know and if I need something later I don’t add it later when I need it, I plant the seed earlier when I first describe it if I can.
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And because I am aware of these things as I am reading it for the first time, I know what my brain is doing as it comes across the new information.
I envisioned a large castle that was far away. When they described it more, the castle stretched in my head. When they had to walk down long long corridors, it got bigger in my head retroactively.
I don’t think that’s cheating, but I think most people would spend two pages describing the massiveness of the castle instead of getting on with the story and adding bits and pieces later to let them know their original impression was correct or to revise their original impression.
Reader: “Oh I thought it was big but it’s even bigger than I thought.”
I think it’s okay for a reader to subliminally say that as they go on through the story, as opposed to, “Wait a minute. This is bigger than the author let me think.” – And have it feel like a mistake somehow.
I think we subconsciouly re-evaluate information we pick up in a story. And objectively, that is exactly what I’m doing, so I am recording this as my impression and this is how it changed and this is why it changed.
So I said, I have seen the “real thing” and I have seen the movie director’s depiction of it; what did the author say? How did the author describe it, and did the filmmakers and theme park builders hold true to the authors vision?
Because she didn’t describe it.
Not to the level of detail the theme park builders would have needed.
And of course, not to the level of detail that the movie maker needed.
Therefore, she did it perfect. The reader can imagine whatever the reader needs.
In a movie, we have to understand that how we envisioned Harry to look may not be the actor they hired.
What I imagine the castle to look like isn’t going to be whatever the director put on the screen. It’s not possible to imagine every single person’s idea of what that castle was in their heads while they read the book.
But if you like the movie and you like the adventure you went on in the movie, then you like the actor and you accept the director’s depiction of the castle, and then it’s hard for you to go back and pull from the few threads that existed in the book, and say they didn’t do it right. Because there’s not enough in the book to tell you how it should be done.
It’s very hard to go back and remember what you imagined prior to what you actually got to see – especially if you really really liked it.
Partly because the look of the actual castle so far through 10 chapters is not super critical to the story.
Yeah. Setting is usually just where amazing characters play in a great story.
Want another example? In Poggibonsi, I was very limited on setting and then went deep dive with it. We don’t really know what Mike’s house looks like; we barely know what his office looks like – but when he gets to Venice, it is so unique and beautiful to him, he stands there and takes it all in.
Same with Julietta. I spent so little time describing people that when I take a whole chapter to describe the beauty of this woman, no reader of the book walks away thinking it was excessive. They all understand this guy is becoming absolutely mesmerized by the beauty of the young woman.
And then later when he is admiring the villa, he really loves the old broken down one that needs to be repaired so that it can become beautiful again like one he where he is staying. And he talks about how great and wonderful and beautiful the new one is, but he looooooves the old one. That’s a big signal to the reader to say this is a metaphor for his life and his marriage.
That was from the heart.
I just like architecture and old buildings, and the villa was beautiful, and I was more impressed with, wow these buildings are hundreds of years old; somebody really had to work hard to make this whole crumbling thing into that beautiful thing. And then I said, You know what, in the story that will be the metaphor. That will be his relationship. And everyone will love it if they get it.
Not everyone gets it, but those who do really really like it
And therefore, a setting that advances the story and the characters. A double whammy on Vonnegut’s theorem.
Okay, so now for some conclusions.
Yes, Harry Potter is GREAT storytelling.
It tells you what you need to know without telling too much, and it is written as a series of mysteries within a big overall mystery. You have to keep turning the pages to see what happens – the best compliment to an author.
Mystery is the largest genre for a reason.
As of chapter 13 I still am wondering about his parents’ story and what’s gonna happen about Voldemort. But guess what? Every story doesn’t start on the first day of the lives of the characters and end with their deaths in old age. Some stuff can remain a mystery.
But I learned one more thing from J. K. Rowling.
I’ll share that tomorrow.
Dan Alatorre is the author of several bestsellers and the amazingly great sci fi action thriller “The Navigators.” Click HERE to get your copy of The Navigators – FREE on Kindle Unlimited!
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